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New York’s Catch-All Contraband and Anti-Smuggling Rules Unconstitutionally Vague

In a suit for damages and injunctive relief, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s de-termination that prison prohibitions against “smuggling” and “contraband” were unconstitutionally vague as applied to Mujahid Farid, a New York state prisoner serving a life sentence. Farid was disciplined for possessing and distributing a pamphlet, produced in violation of the internal by-laws of a prisoners’ organization, that criticized New York’s parole policies and practices. Additionally, the Court of Appeals vacated the district court’s grant of qualified immunity to the defendant prison officials on a motion for summary judgment, finding that the rights at issue were sufficiently clearly established and that a reasonable jury could conclude it was objectively unreasonable for the defendants to have acted the way they did.

In April 2000, while conducting random cell searches, Woodbourne Correctional Facility officers found copies of a 21-page booklet entitled The Politics of Parole: An Analysis by the Woodbourne Long Termers Committee. Farid, a member of the Long Termers Committee (LTC), was subsequently charged with violating prison rules governing contraband and smuggling in connection with distributing the booklet. Following a Tier III disciplinary hearing, Farid was found guilty, lost three months of good time credits and was confined to a Security Housing Unit for 90 days.

In September 2001, Farid filed a § 1983 complaint alleging various constitutional and state law violations. In a pub-lished opinion, Farid v. Ellen, 514 F.Supp.2d 482 (S.D.N.Y. 2007), the district court addressed his First Amendment claims, found the prison’s catch-all contraband and anti-smuggling rules to be unconstitutionally vague, and ordered rein-statement of Farid’s lost good time credits and expungement of the violation from his disciplinary record. Concluding the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, however, the district court denied Farid any monetary damages.

On appeal, the Second Circuit upheld all of the district court’s findings except the qualified immunity determination. Central to the Court’s analysis was the fact that the defendants had testified the pamphlet in question was not contraband per se but rather it purported to be an official LTC publication, which it was not (because it had not been approved by the group’s advisor). Conceding that Farid could have been sanctioned for violating LTC’s by-laws, the appellate court stressed that nothing in those by-laws permitted a sanction more severe than expulsion from the group.

The Second Circuit rejected the defendants’ argument that, in effect, Farid was required “to engage in some kind of interpretive construction, combining the LTC’s bylaws with the prison rules in order to determine whether materials that violate the former might at the will of prison officials be read to constitute contraband under the latter.” The case was re-manded to the district court for further proceedings. See: Farid v. Ellen, 593 F.3d 233 (2d Cir. 2010).

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Related legal case

Farid v. Ellen